Universities have a long history of academic dress and graduation gowns. The color of gowns varies by university, as does style, although there are some common standards that are uniform across most American and European schools.
This history of graduation gowns started in the Middle Ages, when university buildings were chilly and unheated, and scholars had to wear long gowns to ward off the heat. Academic dress for graduations started in the 12th and 13th centuries when universities first began forming. In 1321, The University of Coimbra mandated that all doctors, bachelors and licentiates must wear gowns. In the 14th century, excess in clothing was forbidden in many colleges, and students and scholars wore long gowns not unlike the kind seen during modern graduations.
In the late 1800s colors were assigned to signify certain areas of study. These vary widely by university and are an exciting way to distinguish candidates from different programs and departments. However, some universities assign the same color to all graduates, regardless of their discipline or degree.
Standardization of Academic Dress
While European universities have a large diversity in the type of academic dress and graduation regalia, American institutions employ a definite system of dress, which was designed and standardized by Gardner Cotrell Leonard, from Albany, New York. When he designed the graduation gowns for the 1887 graduating class of Williams College, Leonard published an article on the subject of academic dress and shortly after was asked to work with an Intercollegiate Commission to form a system of academic apparel.
Most graduation gowns come down to the ankles, although some stop at mid-calf. It is possible to tailor your graduation gown to your height, but be sure to conform to your university's guidelines so that you fit in during the processional.
Gowns may be rented or purchased. When renting a gown, be sure that tailoring and alterations are allowed if you choose to shorten your gown. Otherwise, you might incur a fee and be charged for damage to the gown when you return it after the ceremony.